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V.i. Labs Handles Copyright Infringement Differently
Thanks to this press release that appeared on Linux Today a few weeks ago, V.i. Labs Announces CodeArmor Intelligence Support for Linux Platforms, I had a "Oh no, the MAFIAA is coming to Linux" moment:
My first reaction was "Ick! No way!" because the release uses inaccurate buzzwords like "intellectual property" and "piracy", and it sounds like spyware. Yay, spyware for Linux! But something about it piqued my curiosity, so I did a little digging.
First, for the record, there are no such things as "software piracy" or "intellectual property." There are copyrights, trademarks, and patents. (Richard Stallman wrote an excellent article on this.) Piracy is an inflammatory propaganda word; the correct term is copyright infringement. (The Free Software Foundation has a handy list of loaded words and phrases.)
Investigating Before Tizzying
I think we're all familiar with the over-reaching, heavy-handed, and ineffective tactics employed by the entertainment, gaming, and proprietary software industries in their lunatic crusades against "piracy". You have to wonder about companies that treat their own customers like enemies, and then wonder why nobody likes them. So I had a conversation with Victor DeMarines, the VP of Products at V.i. Labs, to learn if flying off the handle in a tizzy was an appropriate reaction.
V.i. Labs targets a different demographic than the RIAA, MPAA, and gaming companies. Their customers are vendors of high-end, very expensive industrial software such as electronic design automation, product lifecycle management, and 3D CAD. Licenses for these run in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.
I think we're all familiar with the intrusive, jackbooted tactics of the RIAA et al: buying bad laws, installing spyware and engaging in mass snooping, planting malware boobytraps on file-sharing sites, dragging people who don't own computers into court, suing dead people, dictating to ISPs and colleges how they will manage their networks, and so on. Sadly, it seems they will get away with their long reign of rampant abuse and illegal activities.
But I digress. Despite being insanely aggressive and unrestrained, none of these tactics work, and several have backfired spectacularly. V.i. Labs' CodeArmor uses a different approach: it reports on copies that are actually being used. The idea is to find out who is using the software without paying for it, and then pay them a friendly visit and turn them into a paying customer. They're not interested in distributors of unlicensed copies, or the odd nerd who makes a copy, uses it once, and then never touches it again. It also protects against reverse-engineering and cheat codes.
As you have already guessed, CodeArmor phones home and reports whatever data the developer has configured it to collect. The reporting mechanism runs in userspace and does not mess with the kernel or any system functions. Savvy nerds who are determined to get a free ride can figure out how the data are leaving their networks and block it. But Mr. DeMarines says this is rare. The more common scenario is the customer purchases some licenses for the product, and then copies are made and passed around. By focusing on the customers who are using unlicensed copies, the software vendor avoids all the traps that the entertainment industry fell into-- different laws in different countries, escalating levels of intrusiveness, becoming public laughingstocks, and having nothing to show for any of it.
Of course, it is up to the individual vendors to decide how they are going to handle the information collected by CodeArmor, and if they want to behave like jerks CodeArmor can't do anything about that. But I suspect that a friendlier approach is more productive.
While I'm not all that enthused about phone-home tactics, it is interesting to me that these high-end software products are moving to Linux in enough numbers to interest ancillary businesses like V.i. Labs. V.i. Labs is a Red Hat ISV partner, supports RHEL 4 and 5, and is considering supporting SUSE as well.